WorldTour dreams, harsh realities: Cyrus Monk’s battle for a pro contract

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For some, the road to the WorldTour is straight and narrow. Others must navigate a road filled with more bumps and potholes than the Carrefour de l’Arbre to reach the top tier of our sport. In this piece, Australian U23 road race champion Cyrus Monk sheds some light on the often not-so-glamorous life of a not-quite-pro cyclist.

After beginning a three-year Bachelor of Science degree immediately upon finishing school, no one could’ve convinced me I’d be riding in the colours of a WorldTour team by my third year of university. After several wins on the amateur scene in both Australia and Belgium as a 19-year-old in 2016, and some strong rides at Nationals and the Herald Sun Tour at the start of 2017, I got my first big break.

In February of 2017, while racing with the Drapac-Pat’s Veg Continental team, I was called into a meeting with the team owner and manager. Initially I had no idea why — I thought maybe I was being disciplined for using a non-team-issue power meter. Instead I was being offered a stagiaire role with the associated WorldTour team (Cannondale-Drapac) – a huge opportunity for any 20-year-old.

Fast track to the back half of 2017 and I was champing at the bit to get into some racing with Cannondale-Drapac. I was lucky enough to get nine race days across three continents and a nicely varied race program ranging from mountain-tops in tours to flat one-day races in The Netherlands.

While I didn’t get any personal results worth writing home about, the team achieved three wins and three other podiums in my nine race days and I was able to be an asset in these races. The team management was happy; the feedback was positive. I was told to start 2018 with the development team again and, provided I got some early season results, I’d join the WorldTour team for the real deal from August 2018.

Things couldn’t have gone much closer to plan to start the 2018 season. I finished the U23 National time trial champs in fourth place, two seconds off the podium and 15 seconds off the win. I then used the confidence from this result to take a solo victory in the Nationals road race, going alone from 30km to go. I thought this result would open plenty of doors for the rest of the year but unfortunately, from this point forward, each door that presented itself slammed shut faster than if I was sprinting against a late ’00s Mark Cavendish.

An admin error from Cycling Australia meant I and several other riders (whose Nationals results would usually have made them a shoo-in) missed out on racing for UniSA at the Santos Tour Down Under. EF-Drapac had said they wanted to hold off on signing until April 1. ‘No biggie’, I thought. I still had a few races before then to stay relevant and show I was ready for the WorldTour.

I came close to netting a big result at Sun Tour with a fifth on the Buninyong stage in the bunch sprint and then being caught inside the last 5km of the Kinglake stage after going solo from the break — plenty enough to show I was still riding well, I thought. Third in the Oceania Road Championships at the end of March and I thought I’d as good as cemented the deal.

April 1 came around and EF-Drapac said they just wanted to wait to see how I went at the U23 Tour of Flanders a week later. I spent the day in the breakaway and, after being caught with 25km to go, teammate, roommate, old mate and good mate Jimmy Whelan attacked straight away and got a gap solo. The rest of the race was simple for me: follow all the moves and make sure if anyone got across to Jimmy I was sitting on them the whole way.

This understandably wasn’t very appreciated by the riders trying to jump across on the final bergs, so any dangerous moves were nullified, and Jimmy was able to hold off the peloton to take the win. I managed to sprint home for 10th in the bunch behind which I was happy with after a big day out in front.

After this I thought we were all sweet. My consistent results would get me the contract that’d been on the table the last 12 months and Jimmy would have a good chance of getting one as well. I was half right.

After trying to contact the management of EF-Drapac in the following days I got zero communication whatsoever — a little strange, I thought, but maybe they were just busy during Spring Classics season. Turns out Jimmy had been given a contract and I’d copped the short straw.

A lot of friends assumed I’d be angry at Jimmy, which to me makes no sense. He had the opportunity, won the race, and took the contract that was offered. Anyone else would have done the same.

I realised that the EF-Drapac pathway wasn’t likely after management said the spoken agreement was “never actually going to happen” and they could only offer another stagiaire instead.

I started asking around in late April to see which other teams were showing interest. The answer was the same across the board: “We’re interested in you for next year but it’s too early in the season for us to sign you, so we’ll wait and see.” I took the stagiaire with EF-Drapac to make sure I could at least get some high-level European racing in the back half of the season.

A team that showed genuine interest, and that put an offer on the table in July, was Aqua Blue. They offered a great-looking program and a development-centred approach to the two-year contract, something that looked pretty good for a 21-year-old trying to get in the game. The offer date stayed as “sometime next week” for around the next four weeks which I was finding a little confusing … until the announcement that the team was folding was made public one Monday morning. Back to the drawing board …

By this point I was sick of talking to teams via email and WhatsApp and getting nowhere. So I decided to go with the ‘let the legs do the talking’ approach. However, my first race with EF-Drapac wasn’t until the end of September and given that the U23 Australian team for Tour de l’Avenir was made up of Mitchelton-BikeExchange riders (or those prepared to pay over $1,000 to attend a July training camp), I was stuck with no racing.

A stroke of luck finally came in early September when I got a late call-up for the U23 Road World Championships. Unfortunately, the only wheels my team could supply me for this race were rim brake, which aren’t known for going too well in a disc brake bike. I was forced to hire a bike from the local bike shop in Girona a day before leaving for Innsbruck.

The bike wasn’t too far from my usual setup, despite being a size too small, but I had a rubbish day out nonetheless and unfortunately missed out on a good opportunity to show myself on the big stage. It’s hard to know whether the bike was a major problem or I simply just didn’t have the legs on the day. But I was quite a way off the pace of riders I’d usually be able to climb with.

Either way, I think I may at least go down in history for being the first rider to race Worlds on a hire bike …

After this I finally got to sink my teeth into some racing with EF with five one-day races over a seven-day period in early October. I was able to help the team net some good results in the first few of these and then manage to finish at the top end myself in the final couple. A 19th and a 23rd are respectable results at this level of racing although they were a good 15 places off the real standout results that may have forced the bigger teams to take me on so late in the season.

(Side note: Given I’m still riding a disc brake bike and they haven’t got race wheels for that bike, I’ve been having to race these big races on my training wheels which makes the bike weight come in at 8.6kg. Not exactly the trim race machine people would expect every rider to be on!)

After these results I went back to all the teams that had said they’d be keeping an eye on me and the reply was again the same across the board, but a little different this time: “Good results but we’re full now. Hope you find a team.” The folding of various Pro Continental teams across Europe and North America left about 100 extra riders on the market and those riders had done a good job of filling any spots that may have been available in other teams.

Which leaves me here now, nearing the end of October, with plenty of results and racing under my belt but nothing in the pipeline for next year. I’m still searching for a team and I’m desperately keen to stay in the game. I’m still only 21 so age is on my side, I hope. I’m luckier than many others in that I have a degree to fall back on and an alternate career path to follow, but I’m certainly not ready to give up on the dream quite yet.

It’s easy at times to look back at the past 12 months and think I’ve been hard done by, but the reality is I’ve copped free trips across the globe to do what I love: ride my bike.

It may not always be fair, who gets a job and who doesn’t, but that’s the case not only in cycling but in life. There are plenty of others in the same situation as me and all we can do from here is hit refresh on the email account and hope for the best.

The life of a pro cyclist is a pretty bloody good one. But chances are the rider you see on the top step of a WorldTour podium has had to jump through plenty of hoops to get there. For every rider that sails smoothly into the pro peloton there are plenty of battlers that have had to fight tooth and nail to get there, and plenty that simply didn’t quite make it. That’s cycling.

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